SHIBA straightens Medicare mess

Local volunteer gives seniors free, unbiased advice
by: contributed photo, Gunner Nemeth is ready and willing to help navigate the Medicare jungle.

Navigating through the confusing, exhaustive documentation regarding the many facets of Medicare can be overwhelming, causing some people to throw their hands in the air - either to pick a plan that doesn't adequately address their medical needs or to just avoid Medicare altogether.

Fortunately, seniors in the Sandy/Boring area have Gunner Nemeth.

Nemeth, a volunteer with Clackamas County's Senior Health Insurance Benefits Agency (SHIBA) since November, visits seniors around the Sandy area to cut through the legalese and help them find the Medicare plans that best suit them.

SHIBA - a nationwide program funded by the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid and administered to communities by state grants - exists 'to help people better understand their Medicare benefits,' said Cindy Zimmerman, coordinator of the Clackamas County SHIBA program.

Largely dependent on volunteers to get its work done, SHIBA trains its helpers to be proficient in Medicare and Medicaid knowledge using an online training program, one-on-one visits with coordinating staff and ongoing updates as Medicare continually evolves.

Today there are more than 70 potential health-care options for seniors on Medicare and Medicare Advantage, a menu of possibilities that often overwhelms seniors who need coverage, said Cami Henderson, director of the Sandy Senior Center.

'We had a lady come in who's new to Medicare, and she had a big pile of all the marketing stuff in her mailbox (from various health-care providers),' Henderson said.

That's where Nemeth comes in. Several times a week he schedules appointments at the senior center, providing free, unbiased advice to seniors one-on-one, helping them narrow their choices from hundreds to two or three. The appointments last between one and two hours.

'(Nemeth) can go on a Web site and pull up a comparison of plans for people, so they can figure out what's best for them - their preference for doctors, hospitals … and the fact that not all prescription drug plans cover their drugs,' Henderson said.

'I can't make the decision for them,' Nemeth noted. 'They have to do it themselves.'

SHIBA also helps people sign up for other Medicare-related services such as the Extra Help prescription drug assistance program, which can save people a lot of money on their medications. And they may not realize all sorts of other help that's available to them, Henderson said.

'(People in the Sandy area) think the senior center just offers meals and trips,' she said. 'We do so much more, and there are a lot of services here people aren't accessing.'

Time after time, Nemeth sees his clients go from confused to covered.

'People are relieved,' he said, reflecting on his clients' reactions. 'It's really cool to be able to help them with getting their insurance.'

With the open enrollment deadline for changing Medicare Advanced plans - Friday, March 30 - fast approaching, Henderson says now is the perfect time to reassess your current Medicare status. To find out more about the SHIBA program, call Zimmerman at 503-655-8574. To schedule a free appointment with Nemeth, call the Sandy Senior Center at 503-668-5569.

Important reminder

Cami Henderson of the Sandy Senior Center urges locals to remember never to give out sensitive personal information, such as a bank account number, to people claiming to be Medicare representatives. Scam artists are known to prey on seniors by coming to their homes, calling them or by sending fraudulent mail. When in doubt, send them on their way and call the senior center.